Letters — 20 July 2016
Letter to the Editor: Belizeans, let’s have a plebiscite

Dear Editor,

Has Belize done everything reasonably possible to buttress its case against Guatemala’s ever shifting claims to its territory?

Guatemala found its claims upon a theory known in international law as utipossidetis, or “as you possess.” In the face of historic fact to the contrary, Guatemala asserts that such authority as Spain exercised in and over Belize prior to Central American independence was exercised through the Captaincy-General of Guatemala. In fact, such authority was asserted instead through the Captaincy-General of the Yucatán.

Guatemala also conveniently ignores the historic fact that once independent, it negotiated and signed a treaty in 1859 which simply recognized and memorialized a pre-existing boundary line between British territory and the territory of Guatemala. In no sense can the 1859 Treaty be construed as ceding Guatemalan territory to Britain in exchange for a promise to build a trade route. Accordingly, Guatemala’s claim to have cause, to rescind its obligation, to have ceded land because of Britain’s failure to build a trade route has no basis in fact or in law.

All this is well and good: Belize can advance a legal defense to Guatemala’s claims, and a telling one at that. However, why stop there; why not go on to formulate the strongest possible affirmative legal basis for the Belizean people’s right to the territorial integrity of their nation?

In the post-colonial era an international legal norm emerged recognizing the right of peoples to self-determination. The right to self-determination was enshrined in 1945 within the United Nations Charter; and it was reaffirmed in 1966 both in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. State practice and decisions of international tribunals have elevated the right of peoples to self-determination to the status of a peremptory (meaning absolute, or decisive) norm of international law.

A legal tool for asserting the right of national self-determination in the face of foreign claims to one’s territory is the plebiscite. For instance, in late 2012 the Legislative Assembly of the Falkland Islands decided to take the view of the Falklands’ population about the Islands’ future, “in a clear, democratic, and incontestable way” (in the words of the Falklands Government). Hence a plebiscite, or referendum, was conducted the following March to determine whether the Islands’ population wished to remain British subjects, or whether they wished the territory to be ceded to Argentina and themselves to become Argentinians.

The plebiscite was conducted under international oversight. Observers came from two of Britain’s “Old Dominions” (Canada and New Zealand), as well from four Latin American states (Chile, Mexico, Paraguay, and Uruguay). An American rounded out the seven-member Referendum International Observer Mission.

1,517 Falklanders cast ballots, out of 1,650 eligible voters, for a 92% turn-out. On the question, “Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom? 1,513 Falklanders voted “Yes,” and 3 voted “No.” In the words of Nigel Haywood, the Island’s Governor at the time(as quoted in the Economist): “Obviously it is a major principle of the United Nations that a people have their right to self-determination, and you don’t get a much clearer expression of the people’s self-determination than such a large turnout and such a large ‘yes’ vote.”

Perhaps the strongest practical measure which Belize might reasonably take to assert its right under international law to full territorial integrity might be to conduct a plebiscite (technically, a vote under the Referendum Act, ch. 10 of the Laws of Belize) on the question, Do you wish the territory of Belize claimed by Guatemala to become part of Guatemala?

Respectfully, Should this plebiscite see an overwhelming “No” vote, both nationally and across all 31 electoral divisions, then the world community (and any international tribunal which might come to examine the issue) could entertain no doubt as to how the people of Belize wish to exercise their fundamental right to national self-determination. Certainly any Guatemalan claim should become all the more tenuous as a matter of international law, in the face of a clear and overwhelming vote of the people living in the affected areas in favor of maintaining the complete territorial integrity of Belize.

David Fine

Attorney-at-Law
Olympia, Washington

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